Minder was devised as a vehicle for Dennis Waterman after his success in The Sweeney, though the emphasis increasingly focused more on George Cole as the wheeler-dealer. The show had a lukewarm start, not helped by being delayed by a nine-week technicians' strike which effectively blacked out the ITV network. In the light of initially poor viewing figures the show faced the axe but a plea by Thames' managing director Bryan Cowgill to other board members saved the show. By series three the show had become a major hit, and the jewel in ITV's Drama crown.
Terry is a former professional Boxer who has served time in prison (Wormwood Scrubs) ("two years for GBH and three for attempted armed robbery" according to a police sergeant in the first episode, "Gunfight at the OK Laundrette"), having served a substantial term because he would not grass up his co-accused. With few options, Terry is employed as Arthur's minder on vague and ungenerous terms. In the title sequence, Arthur is shown meeting him at the prison gates following his release. He drives a white Ford Capri which was either bought or given as part of his employment deal (he drives a copper coloured Capri in some mid-run episodes), and a silver Capri in others. Terry enjoys a drink but usually responsibly, does not smoke and has an eye for the ladies. Despite his incarceration, he is honest, trustworthy and loyal, particularly to Arthur, although the scrapes that Arthur lands him in make him wonder why.
Arthur is a mid-level professional criminal of rather mature years, a minor con man eternally in dodgy dealings, usually seen puffing inexpensive Castella Panatella cigars. He typically drives a Jaguar (first a silver Jaguar XJ6 Series 2, then a pale primrose Daimler Sovereign Series 3) Also in Series 3, he drives a silver Merceds, notably in the episode "Back in Good Old England". In the Series 3 episode Broken Arrow, Arthur drives a Ford Granada Mk.II but as it is in for repair due to accident damage, he is forced to borrow a friends customised Chevrolet Corvette C3 Stingray that he is trying to sell. In the Series 7 episode "It's a Sorry Lorry Morrie", Arthur is down on his luck and has to resort to driving a clapped out mustard yellow Ford Granada Mk.II. In the special episode, "An Officer and a Car Salesman", Arthur has moved up in the world, and drives a yellow Rolls Royce Silver Shadow.
He survives by his wiles and self-belief, and exploits everyone, especially Terry. He is always trying to make a quick quid and his schemes usually backfire and leave him either in debt to local underworld figures, or with his activities coming under the scrutiny of the police (or often a combination of both) - with Terry ultimately being left to sort out the mess and get him out of trouble. Arthur thinks of himself as an "entrepreneur", but his tailored three-piece suits, Jaguar and social affectations do not disguise his working class accent and origins. Arthur tests Terry's patience with dishonest and doomed schemes to make money ("nice little earners"), then uses his cunning to persuade Terry to stay with him. In the same way, Arthur manipulates friends such as Dave of Arthur's haunt (the private, if downmarket, "Winchester Club"). Arthur refers to his wife, who never appeared, as "'er indoors"; the implication that she is a fierce and formidable woman is reinforced by the appearance of actress Claire Davenport (famous for such roles) as her sister. Arthur is not above bending the law and sometimes attracts the keen attention of the local police. Despite being the one who has served time, it is Terry who serves as the show’s moral conscience, keeping Arthur from straying too far outside the law and persuading him to do the right thing whether Arthur likes it or not. The name Arthur Daley has become synonymous with a dishonest salesman or small time crook.
With Arthur's dodgy schemes, the duo encounter undesirable underworld figures, many of whom Arthur deals with and many of whom turn nasty, leaving Terry to fight and outwit their way out of trouble. But for all Arthur's obsession with get-rich-quick schemes, he is never malicious, and the pair often end up putting some other wrong right. Most of Arthur's schemes fail in the end, owing to his greediness, but he does occasionally have the odd minor victory and puts one over on the law or more serious criminals.
The series was conceived for Dennis Waterman, to follow The Sweeney, in which he co-starred as Detective Sergeant George Carter, which had finished its run the previous year. Indeed, as the title Minder suggests, Terry was to be the lead and Arthur, a secondary character, would find different tasks for Terry each episode. However, the rapport between Dennis Waterman and George Cole was evident and quickly became popular. The focus shifted to feature Terry and Arthur more evenly, with more screen time to Arthur and his dealings. Barman Dave (whose last name was given on a couple of occasions as Harris) at first made only occasional appearances, but the rapport between Arthur (and Terry) and Dave also become popular and by the second series he too was given more screen time.
Despite its eventual success, Minder was a slow burner. The first series, although critically acclaimed, did not attract large audiences because it began soon after the 1979 ITV Strike, when the channel was struggling to recover its previous audience. Management at Thames were intent on scrapping the show but managing director Bryan Cowgill persuaded them to commission one further series and repeat the first. Both attracted huge audiences.
The tone of the programme in series one and two, and much of series three, mixed poignant drama and action sequences with offbeat comic moments. As the series progressed over 15 years, more emphasis was placed on the comedic aspects of the minder-principal relationship, and the show became more a comedy driven by a dramatic plot. Social Satire played a strong part throughout the series, grounded in the cinematic and social ethos of the 1980s. In the earlier series Terry would succeed in seducing a 'dolly bird', resulting in at least one scene of female semi-nudity per episode, though as the series became more popular these instances were reduced. And although always an element of the series, the fights—common and brutal in early episodes—were also toned down and became less frequent.
The series has a number of parallels with long-running BBC comedy Only Fools and Horses, with both being set in London, both involving lovable dodgy dealers with endless get-rich-quick schemes which invariably backfire (and both of whom tried to make out to be of a higher status than they really were), and both having a blend of comedy and drama. Indeed, Only Fools... creator / writer John Sullivan has claimed that one of the ways he persuaded the BBC to commission the series was by pointing to the success of ITV's Minder, which had begun the previous year. After both having lukewarm starts, both series went on to became huge hits, and share much of the same fan base. One Christmas, specials of Only Fools... and Minder were scheduled against each other, angering many viewers (in the days before Video recorders were commonplace in UK homes).
The show was a number of times said to have come to its end, only to reappear. For example, in 1984, TV Times reported that series 5 would be the last. In 1985, it again seemed as if that the current series was the last one, and it was off-air (bar repeats) for three years, to reappear in 1988. This series appeared to be the last as Dennis Waterman announced his departure at the end of its run. However, after a two and a half-year break, the show was back again for a further two and a half-year run which ended with the tenth series in 1994. For many years, it appeared that Minder was off-air for good, until the 2008 announcement that the show was to return again then end again in the same year it returned during its eleventh series.
The series inspired a hit single, "Arthur Daley (E's Alright)" by The Firm, which made the UK Top 20 in 1982. George Cole and Dennis Waterman released a Christmas record in 1983 called "What are we Gonna Get 'Er Indoors?" which reached No. 21 in the charts. The duo performed it on Top of the Pops on 22 December 1983.